All the Lonely People
April 24, 2012

There’s a whole subgenre of pop sociology and social psychology dedicated to enumerating all of the causes and consequences of the modern American’s crushing loneliness. The latest entry is Steve Marche’s Atlantic article blaming Facebook and other social networking sites for isolating us all from one other, replacing meaningful interaction with pokes and Farmville.*

Sociologist Claude S. Fischer begs to differ. He writes:

Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation.

Fischer, being a sociologist with a plethora of empirical research to back him up, seems to have the upper hand here. But if he’s right, then what explains the peculiarly modern anxiety about loneliness? What are we actually anxious about? Will Wilkinson has a theory:

The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.

“Increasing awareness of a problem” is one way of looking at it. A related (and not entirely mutually exclusive) possibility is that we’re seeing something that’s always been true, and, for the first time, turning it into a problem to be solved. Facebook may not make us lonelier, but it certainly promises to salve the loneliness we already carry around with us. Same with other social networking platforms. If we have the theoretical ability to remain in perpetual play and discourse with our friends and loved ones, then what right do we have to be lonely?

Maybe we’re looking at the whole problem backwards. Maybe loneliness isn’t inherently a defect to be fixed by more social interaction. In fact, social interaction can sometimes exacerbate it — even face-to-face meatspace social interaction. In those cases, introspection and solitude can be a balm. A controlled exploration of loneliness may be more healthy, long-term, than resorting to social distraction. You might not be able to construct a permanent bulwark against loneliness, but when it rushes past your defenses you can at least acknowledge it as an old and familiar acquaintance.

This doesn’t sound crazy or counter-intuitive to me. In fact, it sounds pretty obvious. But this whole discussion seems to be predicated on the popular assumption that loneliness is always an enemy from whom you should flee. That assumption, I would argue, is the true epidemic.

*My words, not his. But as far as I can tell, poking and Farmville are both over now.

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